By Timi Gustafson, R.D./For the Reporter
When we hear of malnutrition or undernutrition, famine and food insecurities – most prevalent in the developing world and perhaps among the poorest in more advanced societies – come to mind.
Less attention is paid to the fact that lack of important nutrients in fast food and snacks, especially if they are the main or sole dietary source, can lead to symptoms similar to actual hunger. The consequences are just as devastating, even when they are not as obvious at first sight.
The most serious effects of malnutrition are suffered by children and adolescents, causing stunted growth and other developmental problems, both mental and physical. Many of these damages continue into adulthood, oftentimes leading to chronic diseases, diminished abilities and shortened life spans.
A common effect of malnutrition is the occurrence of weight problems, which may seem paradoxical. But in fact, the ongoing obesity crisis feeds on poor diet choices as much as on overconsumption. Cheap, highly processed, energy-dense foods may fill empty stomachs, but their nutritional meagerness does little to satisfy basic dietary needs.
What is important to remember here is that it does indeed matter where your calories come from. Eating highly caloric foods won’t make up for lacking nutrients because they mostly provide what experts call “empty calories,” which leads to weight gain while leaving the body practically starved at the same time.
That is one of the main reasons why obesity has become a major nutrition-related problem populations around the world are facing today, according to a report by UNICEF. And obesity carries with it multiple additional health risks, including diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and certain cancers, the agency warns.
The very abundance and availability of the wrong kinds of food, eaten with little moderation or balance, only adds to the problem, the report laments. And unfortunately, nutritionally almost completely deficient items like sugary sodas, snacks and candy tend to crowd out more beneficial ones.
Current trends are not pointing in the right direction. According to recent surveys, the number of hospital patients diagnosed with malnutrition continues to rise, including in Europe and North America. A growing reliance on junk food leaves many suffering from health conditions usually associated with famine victims, the survey report observes.
Unfortunately, in most cases those problems remain unidentified and untreated, especially in young people who may feel alright, even though they are severely undernourished, Dr. Alastair McKinlay, a gastroenterologist at Aberdeen University, writes in a study on the subject.
The good news is that health implications from malnutrition can in most cases be mitigated if not completely reversed through intense nutrition therapy. Studies have shown that even after initial stunted growth, nutritional recovery is possible, at least to some extent. Obviously, the sooner and more consistently that happens, the better the odds that lasting damages can be averted.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, and blogger. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter, on Facebook and Google+.